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Medicare’s Complex Maze of Choices Even Stumps the Financial Experts

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When people talk about Medicare, the first comment they typically make is, “Why is choosing a plan so dang complicated?” Evaluating the coverage options available to the average senior turning 65 (or someone older who is leaving an employer-provided plan for the first time) can take weeks or months of research and hours of professional consultation. We know one recent retiree, someone given to exhaustive research, who started making Medicare plans for himself and his wife nearly a year ahead of enrollment time, finally choosing the plan he felt was best. Twelve months later, he’s about to change plans, having realized that his research didn’t tell the whole story.

In 2017, Janet Bodnar, former editor of the authoritative financial newsletter Kiplinger, decided to retire. As she made her plans to stop full-time work, she chronicled her journey into the maze of Medicare, intending to enlighten Kiplinger readers about the steps she took to select just the right plan. Her first column on the topic of her own search appeared in December 2017, titled “Health Coverage is No Slam Dunk.” Her intent, as she put it, was “to share a few nuggets of wisdom to smooth the way for future retirees.”  As it turns out, even this intelligent person experienced in personal finance found the Medicare choice intimidating and perplexing.

“When I was planning my retirement as editor earlier this year,” Bodnar wrote, “I thought I had everything under control. Imagine my dismay when I learned that, well prepared though I was, I hadn’t reckoned on some curveballs along the way – especially with regard to Medicare and health insurance – or how labor-intensive it would be to iron out all the devilish details.” In her December column she shared three suggestions for those about to embark on the journey. (Keep reading and we’ll see how Bodnar’s Medicare saga turned out a few months later.)

Bodnar’s first piece of advice may not apply to everyone, but if you use your employer’s flexible spending account to help pay for medical costs, make sure you check the terms and conditions with your employer. You may be assuming, as did Bodnar, that you have until the end of your retirement month to spend any funds remaining in your FLEX account. In her case she learned just in time that the deadline for FLEX spending was actually her retirement date. “I found out just in time that I had to spend the money by my actual retirement date, so I made a beeline for my optometrist to buy a pair of prescription sunglasses and empty my account.” Had she failed to take this step, it would have cost her several hundred dollars.

The second and most important warning from Kiplinger’s Janet Bodnar is the advice we want to emphasize: start early. “For me,” she writes, “signing up for Medicare Part B turned out to be unexpectedly time-consuming.” What she says she didn’t realize, and found out almost by chance, was that she needed to enroll six to eight weeks in advance of the month when she wanted her coverage to begin, in order to make sure the paperwork got through the system.  “I was already at the six-week mark,” she says, “so I hotfooted it down to my local Social Security office to submit my application.” That was in late June, and she was promised coverage effective August 1, with a confirming letter to be sent to her, documentation required to allow her to purchase the supplemental coverage she wanted.  “And then I waited. And waited. No letter of eligibility. No enrollment notice in my online account.” After multiple visits and conversations with Social Security, her letter arrived on August 7th.  Her recommendation: to avoid feeling adrift in the bureaucratic void, start the process at least two months in advance.”

So, without question, choosing from the various Medicare options is complex, even for so-called experts. Which drug plan makes sense? Do you opt for Medicare Advantage or Medicare plus Medigap – and which one of those plans has the right costs and benefits? Earlier this month, Janet Bodnar came out with this follow-up column in the Kiplinger newsletter giving readers Part Two of her bureaucratic journey. “Whew! Thanks for your overwhelming response to my column,” she wrote. “Some of you sympathized with my situation—often in colorful terms. ‘Thus began a journey into the bowels of bureaucratic mayhem,’ wrote one reader. ‘I had to laugh because I just went through the same maze,’ wrote another.”

The bottom line, says Bodnar, is to get some good, objective advice, generally from one of three sources: insurance salespeople, paid consultants, or government agencies. “I was surprised by the number of readers who had sought help from independent insurance agents or consultants to sort out the Medicare puzzle,” Bodnar writes. “In general, you want an agent who specializes in health insurance. Because agents are compensated by insurers, the challenge is to find those who are truly independent and work with a number of carriers, not just one company.” As for paid consultants, some charge a flat fee per hour of consulting services, so you need to make sure you know exactly what you’re paying for before you engaged a fee-based professional.

As for government resources, Medicare’s own website is an excellent place to start. At the more local level, many states offer programs called SHIP, which stands for State Health Insurance Assistance Program. In Washington State a similar program run by the Insurance Commissioner’s Office is called SHIBA – Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors. This website and toll free phone number will help callers confidentially evaluate Medicare and other health care coverage questions and choices.

Janet Bodnar from Kiplinger found out that Medicare choices can be fiendishly complex. So can other retirement-related choices in areas such as finances, legal protection, housing choices and family dynamics, unless you get trusted professional advice.  Bodnar’s Medicare caution was, “Don’t go it alone” – and we at AgingOptions echo that suggestion in all these other essential aspects of retirement planning. Instead of putting a piecemeal plan together, and leaving out critical elements, we invite you to learn firsthand just how powerful the AgingOptions approach to retirement planning, which we call LifePlanning, can be. Come and join Rajiv Nagaich at an upcoming free LifePlanning Seminar and discover how liberating retirement planning done properly can be. Click here for details and online registration.

It will be a pleasure to meet you soon!

(originally reported at



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